obe·​lus ˈä-bə-ləs How to pronounce obelus (audio)
 also  ˈō-
plural obeli ˈä-bə-ˌlī How to pronounce obelus (audio)
 also  ˈō-
: a symbol − or ÷ used in ancient manuscripts to mark a questionable passage
: the symbol ÷

Word History


Middle English, borrowed from Late Latin, borrowed from Greek obelós, odelós (Doric) "spit, four-sided pointed pillar, obol, line in a manuscript marking a passage as spurious," perhaps of pre-Greek substratal origin

Note: The b/d variation has led to the assumption of an original labiovelar *gw, though d would be expected in Attic-Ionic rather than the normally occurring b; obelós has hence been explained as a borrowing from an Aeolic dialect. In the sense "obol" (a weight and coin valued at 1/6 of a drachma) obelós has a variant obolós; the medial o is an alleged instance of vowel assimilation. The need for special explanations to account for the idiosyncrasies in these forms has led to the hypothesis that the etymon was a loanword from a pre-Greek language.

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of obelus was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near obelus

Cite this Entry

“Obelus.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/obelus. Accessed 1 Mar. 2024.

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